A psychologist on lessons learned during a 30+ year running streak
Even people who regularly exercise occasionally fight a battle in deciding whether or not to work out or take the day off. Imagine being in a position wherein that is not even a decision—it is a given. That is where I find myself when it comes to my daily run. You see, I started a streak of running at least two miles a day on June 4, 1985 at the age of 29 and, except for a five-week period in 2011 while recovering from hernia surgery, I continue to meet that goal as of this writing at age 62. My story of how I got to this point follows.
My streak running began after a conversation I had with a colleague about his mentor’s six-year streak of running at least one mile a day, which is the United States Running Streak Association's minimum daily run criterion. My first running streak lasted nearly 26 years (ranked 55th longest by the USRSA as of this writing), and the one I currently have going will turn seven this month. Combined, I have run every day for nearly 33 years when it was not against medical advice.
I decided to attempt my first running streak motivated by my sedentary job as a college professor and a desire to “run away” from a family history of heart disease and diabetes. The science of habit formation tells us that engaging in a behavior over a period (some say 30 days is a critical time) can help ingrain that behavior such that it becomes habitual. I don’t quite recall when I became “all in” concerning my new running streak, but I know it has become a part of me—something that defines me and that I will not willingly give up.
I once shoveled my driveway during a blizzard so that I could run up and down it to complete my daily run. I had a lot of explaining to do to the neighbors. I ran around the block to be close to home when I had stomach issues. On the day I would reach the six-year mark of my first streak, my first child was about to be born. It was a long labor for my wife and the day was nearing the end. Fortunately, my son finally arrived, and I completed my anniversary run on a nearby commercial street wearing the scrubs I had been given.
Of course, you will need to adjust to keep your exercise streak going. I had to relax my outdoor running criterion so that I could run indoors. That also allowed me to run in my basement, in hotel fitness centers, and on cruise ships. After all, it is all exercise. My streak running has taken me through the streets of most major U.S. cities (30+ states and counting), a fair number of international cities, and alongside many oceans, seas, and rivers throughout the world.
On the downside, you need to exercise through tough times. I ran on the days that both of my parents died. On the upside, I also ran the morning of the day that I married my wife. I have run through minor illnesses such as colds and the flu (truth be told, I think it shortened their durations), as well as physical ailments or injuries including back spasms, plantar fasciitis, and knee pain.
My closest call during my first streak was when I tore cartilage in my knee while playing hockey. The next day I could hardly walk. I thought my streak was over. Then, my pharmacist wife advised me to take ibuprofen. An hour later I hobbled through my minimum run. I remember having tears flow as I was able to keep the streak alive. I continued my daily running, including the morning I would have my arthroscopic surgery. The day after was a true test of my will to continue the streak. Undaunted, I got on the treadmill with a cooling cast on my knee that I was given to keep the swelling down. I succeeded again in hobbling through the two-mile minimum and the streak remained alive.
But, you must know when to say when. Following my hernia surgery in 2011, I asked my surgeon in the recovery room, “Are you sure I can’t run tomorrow?” His response was, “Sure. If you want to meet me back in surgery tomorrow night.” Thus, I had to let my first streak end. It was a very emotional experience for me. But, my goal was to “run away” from poor health and if the streak is not serving that purpose, it's pointless to continue. Then and now, I must check in with myself to ensure it's a physically healthy practice but also a mentally healthy one. With commitment to something like exercise you always have to look at its impact on other parts of your life. If ever the desire to push yourself to keep a streak going is something that begins to weigh too heavily on you and becomes a daily stressor, that’s a sign you should back off.
Yet, I knew I had to start a new streak when I was medically cleared. That led to my current running streak, but I've added a new clause this time around. I vowed to exercise every day that I’m physically able so long as it’s the right thing for me and fulfills my life goals.
By the way, I have run much further than the two-mile minimum during the streak. Last year I averaged five miles a day, including several 13.1- to 15-mile runs, spurred on by an Apple Watch competition with my daughter. She is a fitness enthusiast and cycling instructor. I am proud to have passed on my love for fitness streaking to her. Hers is a different kind of streak, and as science affirms, a better one: A cross-training streak. I hope to morph my current running streak into that type when necessary.
The lessons I have learned in all of this include that committing to an exercise streak eliminates the daily battle with oneself that can undermine the pursuit of fitness goals. Streaking allows you to routinize exercise and add it as a part of the script of your daily life. When I rise every day, I know that I must run, shower, and have breakfast before I do anything else. Sometimes the order varies depending on life’s curveballs, of course.
Most importantly, my experience with exercise streaking has taught me about myself and expanded my mindset of what I can do. As a young man in my mid 20s, I never would have believed that I could run at least two miles a day for virtually the next three plus decades. Learning I could run every day was quite a self-revelation for a once obese high school student who hated to run two laps around the gym. As of this writing, I continue to compete against my twenty-something kids to see who the day’s exercise champion will be. And I remain committed to continuing my running streak—or whatever exercise streak lies ahead.
Dr. Tim Osberg is a professor of psychology at Niagara University in Lewiston, New York, and a licensed psychologist. His main goal in life is to launch his students on to their best possible careers for a fulfilling life. In addition to being a runner, he is an avid cyclist who puts in about five to seven hours a week on the bike. He also is a life-long hockey player who participates in leagues two nights a week.